Sixty years in the logistics business has honed George A. Gray Customs Brokers Ltd.’s experience and expertise, says company president James Conrad.
“What it really comes down to is how you deal with your customers.”
“With our history and our size, I think we really deliver that one-on-one approach. When you call us, you’re not just another number.”
The Sudbury company was started by George Gray in 1950, then sold to Piekko Conrad, James’ wife, in 1979. It was then sold to Near North Customs Brokers, a subsidiary of Manitoulin Transport, in 2007. Although Piekko has since retired, James remains president and company torch-bearer.
Although it holds the status as a customs brokerage, the company also offers freight forwarding services, and cargo insurance coverage, with door-to-door and warehousing functions.
Despite the competitive nature of the industry, staff turnover at George A. Gray has remained low. The company’s 11 customs brokers and three freight forwarders have been employed for five to 10 years. In fact, one customs broker has been with the company for 40 years, while the head of freight forwarding has been a fixture with the company for 20 years.
Conrad himself is a long-time broker, having worked for 28 years helping others clear the innumerable bits of red tape.
This built-in experience and expertise has helped solidify the company. In contrast, it is smaller, but more independent than some. This allows for more personalized service, especially as the longevity of the staff has generated some long-standing relationships with countless companies throughout the North.
Conrad attributes some of this longevity to the strong sense of camaraderie that’s built up over the years, as well as the company’s commitment to the development of its employees.
Employees who wish take courses offered through the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA), the Canadian Society of Customs Brokers (CSCB) or Foreign Affairs and International Trade (FAIT) often find their fees covered by the company.
This kind of self-improvement is key to the functioning of a positive workforce, particularly for a company dealing in the bureaucracy of international trade, Conrad says. The rules and regulations for trade are constantly changing and require rigorous observation with close attention to detail. Conrad explains that most people don’t realize even the smallest misunderstanding or ignorance of highly specific regulations can create any number of obstacles. For example, shipments with wooden palettes must be certified pest-free or else risk being turned away at their destination, causing a loss of untold time and money.
Countless details such as these, as well as any number of record-keeping requirements, factor into the need to be constantly informed about the industry, Conrad says.
These kinds of details have also changed, not only how importers and exporters do business, but also in how George A. Gray does business. Procedures and regulations have changed drastically, particularly after the September 11, 2001 disaster.
“It’s become much more difficult,” says Conrad. “You have to know a lot more.”
In the company’s early days, the reference books for customs brokerages were fairly small in comparison to the extensive binders required in modern times. Where there was once a handful of classifications for types of goods, there are now 11,000. What’s more, the shift to electronic data transmission and tracking means more data entry, which can be a time-consuming process, as 50-page invoices are not uncommon.
Still, George A. Gray has adapted throughout the years, perhaps unsurprisingly on the Sudbury-based mining equipment and materials cluster for institutional agencies such as schools and governments. This has led to a greater familiarity with any number of far-flung locals such as South America, South Africa, Russia and China.
However, Conrad cautions this is just a hint of the countless business sectors the company regularly deals in, as the firm’s experience spans the entire globe.
“In my 28 years, the strangest thing I’ve seen was ‘frogman’s underwear,’” he says with a laugh. “The theatre group on the Manitoulin Island needed it for a costume, and I had to help clear it through customs.”